Safe Routes to Schools: Getting the Message Right

Walking to School

Image by Ed L, via Flickr/Creative Commons

Safe Routes to Schools is a state and federal program that assists communities in fixing development problems that make it unwieldy for children to bike or walk to school. Through competitive grants and education, Safe Routes encourages communities to bring back the practice of getting to school under kid-power, reducing obesity and greenhouse emissions.

One of the big challenges of Safe Routes, however, is the community buy-in. Up in Anoka County, Blaine is currently bickering about using a Safe Routes grant to create some “missing sidewalk” between several prominent through-streets and an Intermediate/Middle School campus (grades 4-8). Key in the first round of resistance is reluctance to put sidewalks in people’s yards.

And that’s the first challenge of Safe Routes: The neighbors “losing” lawn are not going to be key beneficiaries of the program. They give up lawn, and gain shoveling responsibilities. They get more kids walking past their house and shedding litter, which wasn’t part of the deal when they bought their property. They get construction noise. So they’re going to be opposed.

To overcome that opposition, a Safe Routes program needs a strong show of support from parents. Parents are going to be the people encouraging/facilitating use of new infrastructure for kids to get to school. Getting parental buy-in is a challenge:

  • Perceived safety is an issue for many parents, who either see the lack of infrastructure as a deal-breaker, or who worry about stranger-danger, poor impulse control among their children, bullying and other issues that center around how kids behave.
  • Many kids do not walk to school due to parental work responsibilities. Many kids are in before- and after-school programs that reflect the work hours of their responsible parents. This results in early drop off/late pick up,and parental desire for speed in order to reach additional activities or dinner.
  • The US Census Bureaureports that only about 23% of kids stay at home with a responsible parent, usually a mom.¬†Compared with other moms, these moms are younger, poorer, non-white/foreign-born, and less educated than mothers in the work force.And please — don’t just say “but not in Blaine!” While some Blaine stay-at-home parents may be well-to-do, in the neighborhoods closest to the Intermediate/Middle School currently in the spotlight families can buy a non-foreclosure home for $150,000 or less, and there are several nice manufactured home communities in the school attendance area. This is not relentlessly upscale.
  • Depending on the background of the parents, cutting across lawns or even walking in the street near the school may not be perceived as especially unsafe. This can be particularly true with immigrant communities.

Meanwhile, the arguments for SRTS are very grounded in the world of bike/walk advocates, who tend to be whiter, more employed, more educated and more male than core communities who need to buy in. Potential program beneficiaries are not necessarily oriented to attending public meetings or speaking up. The values espoused by advocates are nice, but they may not be meaningful to a woman with primary child care responsibilities, who after a long day of chasing the kids isn’t popping into her car to go to a public meeting.

An end result is going to be a victory for the NIMFY crowd, because they are property owners who attend public meetings and vote. City council members feel affinity with these people, as these people are their constituency — in Blaine right now, and elsewhere during other discussions and grant processes. The big challenge here is for advocates to bust out of their advocacy bubble and communicate meaningfully to neighbors and potential users of the program. Neighbors don’t care that Safe Routes make for healthier kids. Potential users have additional concerns that need to be addressed — or have special communication needs.

This lack of buy-in at the local level is what’s driving the state and federal willingness to kill the program. Solving this challenge requires helping silent communities learn the benefits and find their voices — reaching out to communities that are almost entirely unlike the advocacy communities that have created the program, and letting them drive implementation, and define success. It’s a big shift for advocacy. It remains to be seen if this shift can occur.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!